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Feeling the weight of history: (l-r) Friedel and Benesch in The White Ribbon.

In Germany Before the War

By John Rodat

The White Ribbon

Directed by Michael Haneke

The White Ribbon centers around a series of strange, increasingly dire events that take place in a small village in Northern Germany, just before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the outbreak of the first World War: The village doctor is injured in a fall from his horse, which has been deliberately tripped up with a wire strung in its path; the village steward’s son takes ill when a window is left open in the infant’s room; both the Baron’s fair-haired boy and the midwife’s developmentally impaired child are brutally abused by unknown assailants. A mystery is, indeed, afoot.

But The White Ribbon is by no means a simple period who-done-it, nor crime drama. Though the village’s young schoolteacher (Christian Freidel) does make an attempt to discover the cause and/or reason behind the attacks, no full and tidy answer is forthcoming. And The White Ribbon is all the more satisfying for that lack.

The forces at work in the village, and in the movie, are those of time and history. The mystery is, therefore, one that can only be understood in retrospect, and, then, incompletely via recollection, conjecture and hearsay—as stated explicitly by the schoolteacher as he introduces the movie as extended flashback.

The village is, essentially, the tiny society built up around employment on the Baron’s land. The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and Baroness (Ursina Lardi), their nanny Eva (Leonie Benesch), the schoolteacher, the steward Georg (Enno Trebs), the doctor (Rainer Bock), his assistant/midwife (Susanne Lothar), a pastor (Burghart Klaussner), their families, and a small host of tenant farmers, comprise a microcosm. It’s a world traditionally—but only temporarily—detached and independent from the larger world. The effects of such insularity are rendered both deftly and starkly by director Michael Haneke and cinematographer Christian Berger.

The film is shot absolutely beautifully in black-and-white, and its composition and pacing evoke equally a pastoral nostalgia and provincial severity. The community may seem superficially idyllic to jaded post-industrial eyes; but it is founded on a feudal, Teutonic rigor and piety that are positively scourging.

Haneke presents this community in so nonjudgmental and balanced a way as to be almost documentary. It’s more portrait than pronouncement. The crimes committed in the village, and the very cruelty and perversion of the acts, have a kind of sado-masochistic logic to them. They are inseparable from that place, that time. They are of that moment: to solve them would be to solve June 27, 1914—a compelling impossibility.

Through the Looking Glass

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Directed by Werner Herzog

The first moments of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans feature a water moccasin swimming through the roiling waters of the title city, right toward a forgotten jailbird, just as Hurricane Katrina is hitting land. Initially, cops Terence (Nicolas Cage) and Stevie (Val Kilmer) make wagers as to whether the con will make it, before the former suddenly dives into the muck and ruin. He saves the dude, but gets a major promotion and develops a major coke addiction to ease the pain of the back injury he sustained in the rescue. All this happens in mere minutes, and all I can think is “WTF’s happened to Nic Cage and Val Kilmer?”

That these two former bad/pretty boys have aged so visibly not only reminds we of the Brat Pack generation of our own mortality, but serves director Werner Herzog in underscoring his pet theme of exploring man’s limitations within the greater cosmos. So, too, does the movie’s NOLA setting, psychologically just minutes post Katrina. Stevie and Terence roam a city that’s been brutally battered, is still eons away from recovery, and yet remains inextricably linked to its own haunting, otherworldly past. The former is known to pop a suspect he’s questioning, a practice Terence eschews in favor of the more subtly old-fashioned, quid pro quo approach. Terence, whose father (Tom Bower) was a cop, is of the school that thinks if there’s no property voucher in existence, there’s no theft or missing evidence; and that speeding tickets can be shredded without a hiccup in the workings of everyday life. Unfortunately for him, times are changing, and the NOPD is supposed to be operating at a higher ethical and professional level.

There’s another thing working against Terence, as he sets about investigating the murder of a Senegalese family whose heroin-selling patriarch was encroaching on the territory of biggy Big Fate (Xzibit). Namely: his growing dependency on just about anything narcotic. Cage plays Terence as a walking raw sciatic nerve, one shoulder lurched up to his ear, his gait shambling; at times, his lips and eyes twitch in gargantuan pain. The relief he gets from sniffing a bit of coke, or the almost transcendent joy he experiences while, high on crack, banging a college hottie against her boyfriend’s car—while said boyfriend stares on in disbelief—is strangely invigorating, like that first cup of coffee after a punishing night. For all his lurid crimes against those he’s entrusted to serve and protect, Cage maintains a manic likeability. Punished for unspeakable harassment of an elderly patient (who was revealing the hiding place of a key witness), he’s demoted to the property room, the very place where Terence scores much of his haul; the subsequent “oh, sweet Jesus!” look of joy he furtively displays is akin to what a kid who hates the winter must think when the teacher grounds him from recess in February. Somehow, we get it.

The actual mechanics of the murder mystery are relatively pedestrian, except to show occasional glimpses of Terence’s brilliance. Or is it madness? He clearly gets off on the thrill of outwitting the hoodlums, as when he surprises a suspect by sneaking in through the back door. There are side streets of narrative, notably Terrence’s relationship with high-rent call girl Frankie (Eva Mendes), his mix-ups with a variety of nefarious thugs, and his prickly relationship with his dad and stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge). You never really know what’s going to happen, especially when Herzog heightens the icky critter factor by featuring alligators wreaking havoc on the highways and iguanas piping out Johnny Adams’ “Release Me.” But whatever it is, you can’t take your eyes away, especially from Cage. The scenes in which Cage rides with Big Fate and his crew are dizzying, hilarious and yet fraught with real danger. A cracked up Terence pulls a gun on the drug kingpin, before laughing hysterically and recounting a story about an antlered football player. “To the break of dawn!” he croaks in sublime exhilaration, and the bad guys, and the audience, can’t help but be pulled into the weird and wild wonder that is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

—Laura Leon

Down there? Again? Wasikowska in Alice in Wonderland.

Go Ask Someone Else

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton

The talking creatures and demented denizens of Wonderland are not convinced that Alice—the teenage blonde girl who falls into their realm via a rabbit hole—is their Alice. Audiences will wonder the same thing, since Alice Kingsleigh (an appealing Mia Wasikowska) is not only older, but has a different story than the one written by her creator, Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland is more Alice Through the Looking Glass of those other Oxford fantasists—J.R.R. and C. S. But since this Alice is directed by Tim Burton, the Tulgey Woods is lysergically tulgey, and crammed with curious sights to behold (quibbling flowers among them). Alice muddles her way to a foretold destiny amid gnarly, Burtonesque curlicues of flora and fauna, accompanied by a floating Cheshire Cat who levitates in a surrealist ether. Alice is confusedly and tediously reacquainted with other personages from her previous adventure in Wonderland, which she remembers only as a dream. But while she is being scrutinized by Dormouse, White Rabbit, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and hookah-smoking Blue Caterpillar, a galumphing Bandersnatch bounds to the attack. The giant, doglike marauder is halted when Dormouse wields a sewing needle and plucks out its eye like a martini olive. Because this is Tim Burton in Underland (as it inhabitants call it), the film is filled with more grotesqueries than wonders.

The peculiarly flat opening sequences (the screenplay is by Linda Woolverton, of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast) run further aground when Alice crashes the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Johnny Depp’s rambling performance—he intermittently channels Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, and other characters from his Burton collaborations—is hampered by the green orbs that serve as the Hatter’s eyes, though eventually, Depp manages to add some poignancy to the Hatter’s heroics. It’s about the only heartfelt element in the inventively bizarre but emotionally static landscape, although the thespian voices of Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Stephen Fry manage to make their CGI creatures somewhat personable. Helena Bonham Carter is a hoot, and little more, as the monstrous Red Queen, whose favorite command is “Off with their heads!,” and Anne Hathaway is playfully but unconvincingly ethereal as the gentle White Queen. Oddly enough, the liveliest character is Crispin Glover’s evil Knave of Hearts, the Red Queen’s henchman and sycophant.

It’s not until Alice retrieves the long-lost Vorpal Sword and agrees to be the White Queen’s champion that the action becomes more than a collage of set pieces—though it’s not much of a compliment to realize that a standard-issue dragon battle is the highlight, and that Alice’s return to stuffy Victorian England is allusively anti-drug and pro-British Empire.

—Ann Morrow

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